74 Israelis Have Contracted West Nile Fever, 14 With Severe Symptoms, Health Ministry Says

According to the Health Ministry, three patients, who also had other medical conditions, have already died. There are systemic failures in coping with the outbreaks, and the situation is getting worse, public health experts say

Nahal Sorek, where mosquitoes have been found to carry the virus.
Emil Salman

Seventy-four people in Israel have contracted West Nile fever since the beginning of 2018, including 14 suffering from severe symptoms, the Health Ministry announced on Monday. Three people have died from the virus – two of them seniors who were suffering from other illnesses and one a 61-year-old with metastatic cancer.

The Health Ministry has linked the high number of infections to climate change and extreme weather.

According to the ministry, the presence of the virus in several communities indicates a high probability that mosquitoes are also carrying it in areas where it has not yet been found.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Europe has also reported a high number of infections, including 183 diagnoses in Italy and 106 in Greece this year.

Meanwhile, the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians and the Israeli Society for Infectious Diseases issued on Monday a joint position paper criticizing the failure of government ministries and professional associations to blunt the spread of infectious diseases that have recently erupted in Israel.

"In recent weeks, we have witnesses a significant increase in media reports about morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases, with an emphasis on zoonotic diseases such as leptospirosis, West Nile fever, Brucella and leishmaniasis, as well as re-emerging diseases such as measles," read the joint paper.

"This serious phenomenon has been known for some time, and despite the warnings about the need to invest in suitable budgets, to train the proper manpower, to bolster laboratory capabilities and monitor morbidity, and to integrate information between the different relevant ministries. The situation is only getting worse."

The medical professionals further said that the recent outbreaks "expose structural failures of Israel's systems in coping with and responding to emergent diseases and zoonotic diseases on a number of levels. Beyond the immediate, professional and dedicated response in localized incidents, there is a need in intensive treatment and in strengthening the system,” they said.

In addition, the medical associations offered to establish a professional and autonomous public health authority, similar to that in many countries throughout the world. "This body will operate in both routine and emergency situations and will monitor, evaluate risks, prevent and respond to outbreaks of zoonotic and other infectious diseases, and will be a source of professional knowledge in the field and will encourage research and innovation," they explained.

According to the Health Ministry, climate change, which leads to an increase in extreme natural phenomena such as droughts and floods, leads to outbreaks of disease and water pollution among various populations, and to an increase in the rate of breeding among certain disease-carrying pests – including mosquitoes.

Following warnings about the increase in the number of malaria patients, the relevant authorities were instructed to treat mosquito breeding and eradicate them. In addition, according to the Health Ministry, in order to prevent the development of the mosquitoes, it is necessary to treat open standing water sources around the house. In order to avoid mosquito stings, nets should be installed in the windows of the house, and mosquito repellent should be applied.

West Nile fever is usually a mild, flu-like illness, but in rare cases can develop into meningitis and become deadly. The disease usually breaks out six days after a mosquito bite, and typically goes away on its own after three to six days. There is currently no vaccine against the disease.